'Sick-lit' for Teens: Moral Catastrophe or Storm in a Teacup?

What’s the next big thing in YA fiction?

According to tabloid UK publication The Daily Mail, it’s ‘sick-lit’ – ‘a raft of morbid novels, which all too often inadvertently glamorise shocking life-and-death issues’.

highlight The newspaper has targeted a number of YA titles as ‘exploitative’ and ‘mawkish’. John Green’s bestseller The Fault in Our Stars (a Wheeler Centre best book of 2012), about two teens dying of cancer who fall in love, heads the list.

‘Parents should be vigilant if a child is reading a lot of these books,’ says a child psychologist quoted by the paper. ‘The next time your teen is curled up with a book, ask them what it’s about.’

The Times children’s book critic Amanda Craig says that she has been sent 12 of these ‘sick-lit’ books over the past year, but refuses to review them. ‘When you write for children, you have a moral and social responsibility,’ she says. ‘I think there is a cavalier attitude towards this in the publishing industry, especially as children as young as 11 are likely to be reading these books.’

Michelle Pauli, editor of the Guardian’s children’s site (which currently features The Fault in Our Stars as its teen book club pick of the month) has published a passionate riposte.

‘Illness, depression, sexuality – these are all issues that teens are going to bump up against in their lives, whether directly or at one remove, through family members, friends or representations in other media such as TV, films, and the internet. The Daily Mail seems to be suggesting that it is inappropriate for these issues to be looked at in the one place where difficult subjects have traditionally been most sensitively explored for teens: fiction written specifically for them.’

She also points out that writers and publishers of books for teens ‘think long and carefully’ about the impact on their readers – and that the ‘gatekeepers’ (booksellers, book groups, librarians, bookshop buyers) who stand between them provide added insurance.

Children’s publisher Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow says that seriously ill or dying children in books for children are nothing new, citing the death of Beth in Good Wives and two characters in the Harry Potter series as examples. (For a classic Australian example, think Judy in Seven Little Australians.)

Cover__The_Shadow_Girl_John_Larkin_Size4 In contemporary Australia, too, dark and challenging books for teens are popular with readers and critics alike. The three titles shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Young Adults last year were Vikki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted, about a girl from a family of criminals, living in a depressed neighbourhood, who strives for a ‘normal’ life; Doug MacLeod’s The Shiny Guys, set in a mental institution and told through the eyes of a deeply depressed narrator who believes himself responsible for the abduction and murder of his younger sister; and John Larkin’s The Shadow Girl (the winner), about a homeless girl on the run from an abusive uncle, for whom school is a refuge.

Is it exploitative to publish books about dark or taboo issues for teenage readers – or is literature a safe place to explore such subjects? Are books for teenagers getting darker, or are we simply paying more attention to them as YA literature gains a higher profile (and higher sales)? And why are teen readers drawn to dark material?

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8 comments so far:

Typical moral panic from the Daily Mail.

07 January at 10:44AM

Well, yes. That's it in a nutshell. Quite surprised they got the Times critic on board. And the psychologist ... though I guess you can usually dredge up a psychologist on either side of any debate.

The Wheeler Centre
07 January at 11:45AM

As long as they're well written, books with 'dark themes' are fine I think. I used to read Joan Lingard's books about teenagers living through the Troubles in Northern Ireland for example. I loved those books as much as I loved Judy Blume's novels about middle America. Besides, books are 'darker' maybe because this is the kind of world that our young people are having to deal with now. Evidence of climate change, war and extreme weather events are everywhere to see. If this literature creates strong, empowered, socially conscious and thoughtful youth, I think it's all the better.

Vannessa Hearman
07 January at 11:57AM

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green was chosen as Time magazine's book of the year, not just for teen books, but for all books. So the poor old Daily Mail had a slow news week.

Of course, that sort of thing would never happen here.

07 January at 12:00PM

For Christ sake, at least they are READING and not spending all their time on line. I'm at a disadvantage, as I haven't read any of these books, but narratives that attempt to critique real contemporary issues that young people experience may be a really positive step in the right directions. If well written, well researched and empathetically communicative, I can't see the harm. Certainly sounds a lot less morally ambiguous than sexist sparkly vampires and misogynistic B&D and romance novels that young girls in particular seem to read at an alarming rate

Dakini Kundalini Underpants
07 January at 02:48PM

Dark as in difficult subjects doesn't bother me. Kids need to practise skills such as empathy and imagine taking positive action. Dark as in glamourising things such as drug-taking, violence, or any number of destructive behaviours and I start getting concerned. I would not suggest censorship, but I would suggest we start taking a hard look at ourselves and our culture as to why such things have become attractive.

14 January at 03:32PM

Illness, depression and sexuality are part of the real world our teenagers need to negotiate. LIfe and death issues are brought into our homes every day via the media. How can we expect our kids to deal with these hard realities without guidance and support? If you are concerned about what your child is reading, read the book yourself, then have an informed discussion with them. Their maturity and understanding may just surprise you.

14 January at 03:36PM

I addressed issues in the Daily Mail article in this blog post: http://www.darkmatterfanzine.com/dmf/fit-lit-or-sick-lit/

Nalini Haynes
15 January at 07:39AM

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